Wineskins Archive

January 6, 2014

Hope Is Not a Place (Nov – Dec 1993)

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by Monte Cox
November – December, 1993

16Jackson Kiplalon is a rural African. (I may lose some of you by beginning this way, since you may think some touchy-feely missionary story couldn’t possibly relate to whatever’s looking you in the face today. But read on.) In January of last year, Jackson was made Assistant Chief in his home area, an entry-level government job. His regular salary, along with his wife Zipporah’s income from teaching kindergarten, made it possible for the Kilalons to build a three-room house with a tin roof, a step up from the traditional one-room mud hut with a grass roof. With their two small children, Jackson and Zipporah have been the backbone of the church in their village since its establishment in 1986. A young, upwardly-mobile couple, they have been models of Christian commitment and a living representation of what most of their peers aspire to in terms of financial stability and personal happiness in this impoverished nation.

But all of that changed in May of last year when Zipporah fell sick in her eighth month of pregnancy. When she complained of stomach pains, the local “doctor,” trained only to dispense aspirin and malaria pills, told her that the pain was probably nothing to worry about. Days later, after Zipporah had lost much blood, Jackson decided it was time to take her to the nearest maternity ward nine miles away across the river. With no gurney to carry her on or vehicle to carry her in, Jackson removed a wooden door from the house, recruited several neighbors, and together they carried Zipporah, lying on the door, the nine miles to the hospital. They arrived early on a Saturday morning. Since it was a weekend, there were no doctors or nurses around. Nor was there any gas in the hospital ambulance to take Zipporah to a better facility, nor telephone to call for help. Jackson and his friends were not surprised at any of these circumstances. They have just come to accept them as just the way things are.

Zipporah suffered through the weekend, delivering a stillborn baby in the pre-dawn hours of Monday. She continued to lose much blood. When the doctor arrived, he sent Jackson home to gather possible blood donors from among relatives, those whose blood might match his wife’s (There is no blood back at this little hospital.) It took Jackson most of Monday to make the nine-mile trip home on foot, find enough potential donors, and return to the hospital. The doctor then told him that the hospital was not equipped for typing the blood or administering it to Zipporah. Finally, someone found enough gas stored in a can in one of the local shops to drive her at least as far as the nearest paved road 30 miles away. There they hoped to find another vehicle to take Zipporah to the larger hospital another 30 miles beyond. They made it to the paved road by evening. Unfortunately, there are few vehicles on this remote stretch of African highway, especially at night. Before the first one passed, Zipporah bled to death. She was 24 years old.

The ambulance driver managed to borrow enough gas from the first passing vehicle to make the trip back to the village immediately and spare Jackson and those with him the awkwardness of asking strangers to house a corpse for the night. Many relatives hadn’t even heard that Zipporah was sick when she was buried early the next morning. Jackson wrote me two letters in quick succession informing me of her death – two, because, knowing the inefficiency of his country’s postal service, he was afraid I might not get the first one.

Jackson is a fatalist. That doesn’t mean he wants to kill himself. It means simply that he does not believe that he is in control of the factors that influence his life or the lives of those he loves. As you can tell from the story, he has good reason to feel he is not in control. What you cannot tell just from the story is that Jackson lives in a spiritual world filled with unseen forces whose movements, he believes, affect his life greatly. His readiness to accept negative circumstances as his lot in life stems from his feeling of helplessness in the face of these forces, both seen and unseen. And he is not alone.

Billie (not her real name) is a rural Arkansas mother, struggling to survive. Her husband’s work is seasonal. Consequently, financial solvency, regular nutritious meals, and sufficient clothing for the children are also seasonal – sometimes they do okay, sometimes they don’t. Their trailer home reflects the struggle. From the bare plywood floor in the kitchen to the threadbare black couch (actually gold velour covered in filth), to the stacks of useless junk that seem to be everywhere, this is the squalor this rural couple and their two unkempt children call home.

The visitor from school who had come to call watched compassionately as Billie slowly and deliberately wrote the name of her school-aged child as if it were a complicated mathematical formula. Billie appreciates the visitor’s help. She appreciates all offers of help. But deep down she doubts that her life will ever improve. She is not surprised by her circumstances. She has come to accept them as just the way things are.

I wonder if Jackson could relate to Billie better than I can? Would he know how to encourage her? Would he know what to say? Actually, I know what to say. I can encourage her by quoting Philippians 4:13: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength,” and support my optimism with Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” The problem is not knowing what to say. The problem is whether or not I have earned the right to say it by experiencing its truth in my own life.

You see, most of us who are reading this publication are members of the same sociological stratum of society. Our worldview is similarly optimistic. When my wife is sick, I simply telephone the doctor – I can even reach him on his mobile phone if he’s not in the office – and make an appointment. In case of emergency, fine hospitals are only minutes away. I own the vehicle that will take her there and can afford the gasoline that powers it. Even if the visit is expensive, I have the means to pay for it or it will be paid for me. I will not be refused treatment for lack of money. So, when my wife is sick, I swing into action, confident that I am in control.

Christian optimism which is based on the sovereignty of God is a beautiful and hope-filled virtue which all Christians should experience regardless of where they live in the world. But sometimes what passes for Christian optimism is really a humanistic sense of control in disguise. Then a Billie comes along and challenges my basis for confidence without saying a word. She hears me speak of hope in Christ, but it’s easy to understand why she might look at me with eyes that say, “That’s easy for you to say.” And Billie is not alone. It may be an inner-city kid, r a homeless man, or an addict, or the child of divorce who stood helplessly by as his parents split up. It may be the overworked executive who feels that his life is out of control and whose optimism has been devoured by the chos. When we talk to such people it is important that we not promote one foundation for confidence while we’re actually standing on another.

This is no ticket for a guilt trip. This is a call for an honest evaluation of where our confidence lies. Is it in our ability to control our world or is it in our confidence that God is the ruler regardless of what happens in our lives?

I believe the fire of renewal burns brightest and longest when it is fueled by an outward-looking sense of mission. As more and more churches target receptive people in our nation, they are finding that the search has taken them into sub-cultures made up of people who view the world very differently than most of us. Many of those people are fatalists. They don’t think their lives will ever improve. For them there is not hope. The people of God must correct that. People ought not be fatalists. God can be trusted. God can help all people make changes in all areas of their lives that will improve the quality of life for them in this life and the next. But one of the most challenging things that will happen, as we optimists engage the world, will be that people like you and I will be challenged to consider more than ever before just where we get all of this confidence. Hopefully, we’ll be able to check the ground beneath our optimism and find it labelled “nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Hope built on anything less is no place we want to be.Wineskins Magazine

Monte Cox

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